Andy Cruz and Juan Carlos Burgos squared off and locked eyes on a stage set up in a hotel ballroom in downtown Detroit, and did what boxers usually do when they stand face to face.

The two lightweights, scheduled to fight Saturday night, scanned each other for signs of doubt or dehydration, evidence that a fighter may have drained himself to meet the 135-pound weight limit.

Burgos, a 35-year-old fringe contender from Mexico, looked blankly at Cruz, a 27-year-old Cuban who won gold at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Cruz, who left Cuba last year, cracked a weak smile and gave Burgos a slight nod. The staring contest ended with a handshake.

For a seasoned pro like Burgos, looking down and sizing up an opponent at a pre-fight news conference is a familiar ritual. But the routine is entirely new for Cruz, the athlete widely regarded as the best boxer in a generation to emerge from Cuba’s famed amateur program. Cruz is a three-time world amateur champion, and the BoxRec record database credits him with 140 amateur wins (and nine losses).

Leaving Cuba made him the hottest free agent in the sport. In May he signed a three-year contract with Matchroom Boxing. His fight on Saturday, on the undercard of a world title fight between Alycia Baumgardner and Christina Linardatou, is, for boxing fans, the most anticipated professional debut in years.

Cruz’s amateur history highlights his talent and ability, but does not guarantee professional success. Professional boxing not only places a premium on punching power, but also expects competitors to shoulder a heavy promotional burden. Producing publicity with looks and other appearances is now part of Cruz’s job. There is one more transition to navigate between the sport of amateur boxing and the business of professional prizefighting.

“Photos, videos, it’s a completely new process for me but I’m learning very quickly,” Cruz said in an interview. “I have no problem. I really like the cameras.”

For Matchroom, simply signing Cruz was a win. Its deal with Cruz guarantees the fighter seven figures over three years, a rookie deal that promoters feel fits his resume.

But Cruz also presents a unique challenge, said Eddie Hearn, the president of Matchroom Sport.

The boxer will turn 28 next month, and would not necessarily benefit from beating the over-sized opponents that often populate the early career records of star fighters. If boxing were baseball, Cruz could be Yulieski Gurriel — a Cuban superstar who arrived in the United States as a fully formed pro. Gurriel played just 15 minor league games in 2016 before the Astros promoted him to the majors. He was 32.

Hearn says Cruz is already equipped to defeat elite lightweights, such as Devin Haney, the undisputed champion, and Gervonta Davis, the popular power puncher. But he also realizes that fast-tracking a fighter can lead to a dead end.

“The real smart thing is I want to put him in those fights when he’s actually ready. We have to get the balance right,” said Hearn.

Cautionary tales abound.

Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez won Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016, but lost his professional debut in 2019. Ramirez, who is now the World Boxing Organization featherweight champion, blamed that loss on a failure to adapt from amateur to pro-style boxing.

In 2014 Vasiliy Lomachenko, Olympic champion in 2008 and 2012, challenged for a professional world championship in his second professional bout. His opponent, a rugged veteran named Orlando Salido, used advantages in size (he weighed in at more than two pounds over the featherweight limit) and experience to hurt the smaller Lomachenko and win a 12-round decision.

The debut of Cruz against Burgos is the co-main event, under the outstanding attack between Baumgardner and Linardatou for the super feather belts of several women. Cruz and Burgos will fight for the men’s title of the International Boxing Federation “Internacia”, a step below a world championship, similar to two MLB teams in the wild card round of the playoffs.

Saturday’s bout marks the first time the IBF has sanctioned a title fight involving a fighter in his professional debut, a sign that regulators already view Cruz as a veteran. But to Burgos, Cruz is a rookie until he proves otherwise.

“If Andy Cruz wants to show that what they said about him is true, he has to come out and fight,” said Burgos, who is 35-7-3. “They say boxing is hit and miss, but people want to see action. They want to see punch exchanges.”

For his part, Cruz is aware that he is fighting both Burgos and the perception among boxing fans that Cuban boxers are brilliant technicians and clever tacticians, but dull to watch. Cruz says he already understands that where amateur boxing rewards winners, professional boxing rewards winners who also entertain.

“He will come and apply his experience; I’m going to go out there and show that I’m ready to fight with the best in the division,” Cruz said. “The goal is to win, and show well. Shine, and give the public a show.”

After securing a visa and signing with Matchroom, Cruz moved to Northeast Philadelphia to learn pro-style boxing under trainer Derek Ennis. The trainer’s job was not to reprogram Cruz, but to teach him to punch with authority, stand up and prepare him for a new crop of opponents who, like Burgos, would rather rumble up close than box from long range.

“Get all your shots together and be ready for the guy to come back. That’s where defense comes in,” Ennis said.

Burgos’ record includes unanimous decision losses to Haney and Keyshawn Davis, Cruz’s amateur rival who is currently a fast-rising professional prospect. So Saturday’s result will help determine how Cruz compares to his elite peers. Moving forward from there will involve balancing the related, but not perfectly aligned, interests of Cruz and his team.

Ennis wants to build the skills of the boxer. Cruz wants to live according to the mythology that has sprouted around him. Hearn wants to stage the most profitable fights possible.

“The coach and manager make the decisions. We have to convince them of the strategy,” Hearn said. “I have to give them the reality and the facts of the business world.”

Now their enterprise is taking a brighter stage.

“It’s going to be difficult, but that’s what I’ve prepared for. For this moment. I am a person who works well under pressure, and I will show it this Saturday,” said Cruz.

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